Without The Upward Voice in place to clarify expectations and neutralize negativity an organization is opening the door to frequent communications calamities between the upper and lower levels. Just such a situation is illustrated by the following true story:
Picture a small city run by a city manager who was under pressure to justify the salaries of his department heads. After discussing various options including the freezing of all salaries at the monthly public meeting, the city council recommended that department heads get out into the community more so that the voters would see what they were getting for the taxes.
Later that day the city manager verbally passed on that recommendation to the department heads. Hearing what he thought was a mandate the public works director and the maintenance superintendent spent that afternoon driving around the city.
Early the next morning the superintendent met with the trash collection crews and told them that instead of making their rounds as usual, they would be trimming mistletoe from the trees in the parks. Trash collection would have to wait.
It was not long after that the city hall receptionist was flooded with phone calls complaining about the trash and recycle bins being left at the curbside. The city manager and the public works director tracked down the superintendent, who was surprised by their anger and accusations.
He explained that during their drive around the city, the public works director had told him that the council wanted some action to justify the recent pay raises. Since the only thing the director had commented on during their trip was the overgrowth of the mistletoe in the city parks, the superintendent assumed it to be a priority.
The city council, in a mood to fire everyone connected with the fiasco, called an emergency department head meeting. The members were stunned to learn that their well intentioned directive “get out in the community more” halted the trash and recycle pickup.
All they had intended was for the senior managers to have higher community visibility. They envisioned appearances at Chamber of Commerce functions, speeches to the downtown association, presentations to service clubs and schools, and interviews on local TV and radio stations. In other words, the council expected the department heads to mingle with the citizens and promote the council’s vision of the city’s future.
The city manager perceived their directive differently. He thought that the council was upset with his “overpaid” department heads. His strategy was to light a fire under them before he lost his job. The public works director also saw the “warning” as a threat to his job because he had been neglecting park maintenance. If there were problems in the park, he had better find them quickly and set about to fix them.
The superintendent simply thought the public works director was mad at him for something, so he was eager to get back on his boss’ good side by taking care of the mistletoe overgrowth promptly. The pickup crews knew something was screwy, but kept their opinions to themselves and did what they were told without question.
As the real story unfolded the players began to see, perhaps for the first time, that their communications channels were badly clogged. At first they were disappointed and disillusioned by the discovery. But, with a little push, they revisited some of their past misadventures.
Soon thereafter, encouraged by their eagerness to improve communications, the management team set about to create The Upward Voice. It did not take long for the supervisors and staff to get on board. Gradually, as other citizens were drawn into the process of assessing the level of services and recommending changes, the atmosphere of tension and suspicion was replaced by one of anticipation and cooperation.